You’ve probably seen this sign before. It’s usually held by a very frail, sunburned man or woman standing at a busy intersection (at least that is usually the case in Central Florida). I have so many mixed feelings when I see someone holding a sign like this and asking for help. Sometimes I want to give them everything I have. Sometimes I feel angry that I am working myself to the bone and barely making ends meet. “There are so many opportunities available in this community…why not take advantage of them?” is what I ask myself.
When I was in college, I lived above a convenience store during my sophomore year. One night when I was walking home, a woman stopped me outside of the store and told me she was homeless and needed tampons. I told her I didn’t have cash to give her, but that I would go into the store with her and buy her what she needed. She cussed me out and took off stomping down the sidewalk.
Ever since then I have been a little wary of anyone who claims homelessness. I mean, there are shelters and job centers and food banks and safe homes all over the place. Why don’t they just ask for help? Work harder? Pull themselves out of it? Put down the pipe and fill out a job application?
Then I started working in jail. I learned that many homeless men and women are suffering from at least one mental disorder. When jails have had their fill of schizophrenic and bipolar inmates who cannot afford medication or psychiatrists, they release them back to the streets. Yes, many of the homeless people you see may be addicted to one substance or another. It’s the only thing they can get their hands on to quiet the demons in their heads. I have the resources to see a doctor and get medication for my anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive tendencies. Without these resources, I would be looking for any form of relief.
So imagine my surprise when I was walking into jail this past Sunday and my friend and ministry partner said, “Hey Lindsey! I looked up the definition of homeless the other day, and it actually applies to you!” Not exactly comforting, but she had a point.
Several months ago, I was staring a a pile of bills and crunching numbers to try to make my three part time incomes add up to what I needed to pay for bills, living expenses, wants, needs, debt, groceries, gas, car repairs, etc. Let’s just say the numbers weren’t working in my favor. I looked into every legal way to obtain more cash. Nothing seemed viable. I considered taking on a fourth part time job. I then realized I would be mentally incapacitated within a month or less if I did that. I argued every version of “this just isn’t fair” that I could think of. I even punched a table with my bare fist.
After a conversation with a friend/coworker/life guru/fellow Marvel comic enthusiast, I realized the answer wasn’t in working more or making more money. It would have something to do with giving up the comforts I clung to, and doing something super inconvenient for a set amount of time in order to provide space for me to see God’s provisions.
So at the end of June, I left the keys to my rented townhouse on the counter, loaded my car with the last of my belongings, and walked away from home. I put some of my things, including my bed, at my friend’s house. I put the majority of what I own in storage. I gave my furniture and kitchen wares to a young couple that is getting married soon and needs things to start a home together. I dumped some things at my boyfriend’s apartment, and I packed some clothes because during the week I would spend my nights at a residential program for women who are coming out of addiction and prostitution.
Seemed like a good idea, right? For six months I would sleep five nights a week at the house, two nights a week at my friend’s apartment, and would just pack and unpack and repack a bag every few days. I would save money from living expenses to pay off bills and maybe even be able to afford health insurance! I would be debt free by year’s end and have a small start to a saving’s account.
Two months, countless meltdowns, and no health insurance later, I can honestly say this is so much harder than I thought it would be. All that money I was going to save? It is all going into necessary car repairs to get my car running again. Health insurance? No way. It is still too expensive, even with the “generous” tax credit. And a saving’s account? Nope. I get maybe two good nights of sleep a week, I see my boyfriend on most weekends (when I am not falling asleep in the middle of a movie or conversation), I have let down and stood up countless friends and coworkers, and I have gained 20 of the 70 pounds I worked so hard to lose last year.
So when my friend informed me that I fit the description of “homeless” as defined by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, I wanted to stand up on a table and shout “SEE WHAT I HAVE GIVEN UP? EVERYONE SHOULD MAKE SPECIAL EXCEPTIONS JUST FOR ME. I AM ENTITLED TO YOUR PITY!”
And then I talked to women who are actually homeless – as in no safe place to rest their heads at night. I talked to my weekday family members about their homeless days, and learned what it feels like to drag an abandoned mattress into a public park just to have a place to lie down. I talked to a man outside of Publix who hadn’t eaten in several days and learned that he has a lung condition but doesn’t know where to get help.
How did I get to this place where I feel sooooo entitled that I believe everyone else should rearrange their lives just so that I feel better about the crappy decisions I have made over the years? Some people can’t even qualify for one job because of a mistake they made 20 years ago. I have three jobs. I don’t make a lot of money. I can’t afford a lot of “extras”. But I have gas in my car. I go to the grocery store every week. I have a car with air conditioning in it. I have clothes to wear (even they are pretty tight right now). I sleep in a warm bed in a safe house and have somewhere to go when I am not there. And I am OBVIOUSLY not starving.
So when I pass someone holding up a “Homeless” sign, I feel humbled and grateful. I may not have cash to give, but I have plenty of space to check my own mind and heart before I judge that person for just doing the best they can with what they don’t have. And you know what? Maybe that man or woman will spend that dollar on beer. But I can’t tell you how many times in college I told my mom I needed to buy a book and then I went to $5 pitcher night at Portside Bar and Grill. Come on. Like I’ve never been stupid with someone else’s money? Who am I to tell them where to spend it?
So I may be technically homeless for the next few months. I may want other people to change their minds and schedules so that I don’t feel so defeated by my own choices. At the end of the day, God does bless, and I have a feeling he has more to teach me during this season of life than I could have ever imagined possible.